For two and a half hours earlier today, a panel of Israeli judges explained, in great detail, its decision to convict IDF sergeant Elor Azaria of manslaughter for shooting a wounded Palestinian terrorist. The decision—scrutinizing every bit of available evidence before rejecting Azaria’s claim that he had shot the man, Abd-el-Fatah a-Sharif, because he was concerned a-Sharif may be wearing an explosive device—is a masterwork of legal argumentation. It is also morally repugnant, and likely to compromise Israel’s ability to effectively and resolutely deter the homicidal maniacs who repeatedly set out to stab, shoot, stone, torch, and bomb its soldiers and citizens.
The problem with the Azaria decision isn’t with its process but with its premise: a detailed examination of a soldier’s conduct is sensible only if we assume that the victim is entitled to the fundamental protections we award citizens and, in cases of outright war, enemy combatants. But terrorists deserve none of these protections. Having resolved to operate outside the scope of civilized conduct, they sign their own death warrants when they pick up the knife or the gun and set out to murder and maim whomever they happen to meet. The circumstances of their demise hardly matter: whether they are killed in action or executed once neutralized is a matter for technical and internal arbitration, not criminal investigation. Azaria may be guilty of disobeying the army’s open-fire regulations, and if he is he should be punished accordingly, but to convict him as you would someone who had taken the life of an innocent man is a grotesque mockery of justice.
Sadly, too many Israeli politicians and senior officers opted to applaud Azaria’s prosecution as a way of demonstrating to the world that the IDF is truly, as the old talking point had long argued, the world’s most ethical army, with the chief of staff even taking the extreme step of condemning the solider before his trial had even begun. That’s a shame. It’s vital, of course, that the IDF remain impeccably committed to the highest standards of ethical conduct, but it’s far more vital that it win its war against those who work tirelessly to snuff out Israel’s existence. And winning the war on terror means denying the terrorists their chief advantage, namely committing violence and then demanding to be tried and treated fairly because they are, technically speaking, merely civilians.
The United States, for the most part, understands this principle well; it’s why we have such useful tools as drones, and why we run the prison in Guantanamo Bay. Most Israelis understand it as well, which is why hundreds took to the street today to support Azaria and why former generals like Uzi Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s nephew and one of Israel’s most astute military thinkers, testified in the sergeant’s defense. “Terrorists,” Dayan said during the trial, “must die, whether or not they posed a threat at the very moment of their killing.” It’s a lesson Israel can’t afford to ignore.